I once cursed his name, but Evernham deserves respect for dominant stint at Hendrick
Newer fans probably know him as a TV commentator and co-owner of the Gillett Evernham team, which has seen some success with Kasey Kahne in recent years, but overall has struggled since debuting in 2001.
But when the history books are written decades from now, this decade of team ownership will be but a mere blip in Ray Evernham’s biography, and the rest will be devoted to his time as crew chief for Jeff Gordon.
Just thinking about that era brings me flashbacks of the intense hatred I had for this man in the late 1990s, as he was guiding the damn near unbeatable Jeff Gordon to race win after race win, and championship after championship.
At the time I began watching NASCAR, I instantly loathed everything relating to Hendrick Motorsports. Owner Rick Hendrick had just pleaded guilty to mail fraud related to shady business dealings at his Honda dealerships, and would have gone to prison for a year had he not been sick with leukemia. Instead, he spent a year on house arrest and wasn’t allowed to have any involvement with his auto dealerships or race team.
I wasn’t about to root for a criminal like Hendrick or anyone who raced for him in a criminally funded organization. As a side note, I still think it‘s ridiculous that Bill Clinton pardoned him in 2000 … I‘m guessing Hendrick used the fact he was sick to guilt Billy into giving him the pardon.
But that’s a whole different tangent. Getting back to Evernham, during the second half of the 1990s, Jeff Gordon was an unstoppable force in a Hendrick car and the mastermind behind his success was Ray Evernham. Even Chad Knaus and his masterful efforts as Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief in recent years can’t match what Evernham and Gordon did a decade earlier.
Every time I would go to a race during this time span, there was about a 60 percent chance I’d be seeing a Gordon victory due to Evernham’s brilliant setups and decision-making, Gordon’s talent and strong Hendrick equipment -- the combination of which had taken the sport by storm.
My eyes would get blood-red with anger as I saw that rainbow car cross the finish line first (or pretty close behind) week after week. I cursed the names of Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham so often that a week in a confessional booth wouldn’t be sufficient to describe it.
But despite all this, as I look back, I harbor no ill will toward Evernham, or Jeff Gordon for that matter. Just as I can appreciate the ability of Chad Knaus today, looking back years later I recognize that Evernham made excellent decisions for his driver each week and could set up and adjust a car better than most crew chiefs who have ever sat atop a pit box. Likewise, despite all my displeasure at his past success, I recognize Jeff Gordon is a talented driver and probably would have won a lot of races even if he didn’t race for a criminal.
While my dislike of the man in charge still persists, I can say I’ve moved past disliking each and every one of his employees by extension. And despite the many names I’ve called him in the past, I’ll be the first to say that Ray Evernham should be remembered as one of the greatest crew chiefs in the sport’s history.